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ILAB at 70: Still Fighting for American Workers

The Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) recognized its 70th anniversary on Oct. 10. Deputy Undersecretary of International Affairs Martha Newton takes a look at where the Bureau has been and where it’s going as it continues its international work in defense of U.S. workers and American values in the global economy.

Three workers in silhouette load a truckbed with grains.
ILAB helps ensure a fair playing field for U.S. workers and businesses by improving labor standards overseas. (Photo: Chris Leones/World Vision)

When I had the privilege of returning to ILAB a few weeks ago, I was struck by just how familiar all of it felt. It wasn’t just the faces of the dedicated staff, many of which were the same as when I first arrived here 15 years ago. It was the nature of our mission, which has remained remarkably constant – going all the way back to the Bureau’s founding.

ILAB turns 70 this week. And while our work, like the world, may look very different today than it did in 1947, it still serves the same vital purpose: to help ensure a fair playing field for U.S. workers and businesses by improving labor standards overseas.

ILAB began its mission in 1947, when President Harry S. Truman created the Office of International Labor Affairs.  Since then, ILAB has helped to lead much of the U.S. government’s work to engage on labor and employment issues around the world.  We have done this through cutting-edge research, effective labor diplomacy, and grants for technical assistance to fight labor abuses and promote compliance with trade agreements.  Suffice to say that a lot has changed since 1947 – the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of international trade, and the increasingly complex global supply chains that go into producing the goods we use every day.

But what hasn’t changed is the need to protect our workers from unfair – and in many cases unconscionable – labor practices that put U.S. workers and businesses at an unfair disadvantage to those who permit the exploitation of workers.

If you’re a coal miner in West Virginia or a farmer in California, you could be competing directly with producers in other countries who use child labor, provide unsafe working conditions, or do not pay workers what they’re legally owed, undercutting the higher standards we maintain here at home. On a level playing field, bet on the American workforce to win that competition every time. But that requires everyone to play by the same rulebook and commit to upholding fundamental labor standards.

ILAB works to ensure that happens.

We stand up for our workers by negotiating tougher labor standards in our trade agreements. We enforce existing commitments and hold trade partners accountable. We produce the world’s leading research on international child labor and forced labor, that serves not only as a tool for raising awareness globally but as a starting point for action by foreign governments. We put tools in the hands of businesses to help them root out child labor in their supply chains. We represent U.S. interests in important global forums, such as the International Labor Organization, the G20, and the G7. We facilitate exchanges with other countries to help shape policies and learn from successful models for apprenticeships and other programs.

And we’re getting results. Since the Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking was first established nearly 25 years ago, its leadership on these issues has contributed to a global reduction in child labor of nearly 95 million. Our labor law monitoring, enforcement, and technical assistance has resulted in tougher labor laws and better enforcement on the ground among U.S. trade partners. ILAB’s support for innovative partnerships with businesses and workers has lifted labor standards in export sectors across the globe, from agriculture in Mexico to garments in Jordan. ILAB’s direct engagement overseas through our Labor Attaché program and our coordination with the U.S. Department of State has increased monitoring capabilities and multiplied ILAB’s impact in key countries, including Bangladesh and Colombia.

As we look ahead, we will bring our seven decades of experience to bear on renegotiating strong labor provisions in trade agreements to get a better deal for our workers and to push globally for the complete eradication of child labor and modern slavery.

Our gaze may be turned outward, but our primary focus has always been inward, on our workers. “Jobs, more jobs, and even more jobs” is the focus of this administration, and to have that, we cannot allow U.S. workers to compete with exploitative labor.

These are not only immoral practices that I, as a mother, am pained to see persist in the world. They are also job killers – because they replace jobs with a form of abuse. We can’t abide them. And we can’t afford them.

That’s why ILAB was created in 1947. And that’s why ILAB’s international work is as critical as ever in 2017 – in support of the department’s mission to ensure good jobs here at home.


Martha Newton is the Deputy Undersecretary of International Affairs for the Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs. 

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